At the NC Writer’s conference, guest speaker Bridget Lacy said that before doing anything she always asks herself, ‘Will this help Bridget.com?” Writing is a business, she insisted, and writers must consider themselves business people. My friend Jenny and I talk about this often over coffee.
“chante’ is not that brilliant a poet,” I tell Jenny. “But people love her and buy her books.”
Jenny takes a sip of her iced Americano. “It’s because she has a costume.”
I recall the last time I saw chante’ (no last name, just chante’ in all lower case) when she was reading at a poetry and spoken performance evening in Charlotte. She is a tall, slim, African American woman who wears beaded hair extensions that clank like battery cables. Her long flowy garments seem to fill with air and waft around her even inside crowded, smokey coffee houses. chante’ smells like patchouli and Vicks.
Jenny leans over her stapled pages of poetry. “I have more range. I have a bigger vocabulary.” She leans back again crossing her arms over her chest. “But,” she adds, “I don’t have a costume.”
I nod at her. She is right. Writing is about marketing. It’s about Jenny.com. Jenny needs a uniform. A costume. Poor Jenny. She is not African American. She looks exactly like what she is: a Scots-Irish-German descendent of people who came to the US on their own in the 1830s to farm tobacco. She could go to open mic nights dressed like the St. Pauli girl or Braveheart but I don’t think it would send the message “Poet” to the house. “Poser” maybe. “Pathetic” possibly. I have the same problem. If I brought my ethnic heritage to the Emerging Writers Potluck it would be Velveeta on Wonder Bread with Duke’s Mayonaise. Not even cut on the diagonal.
Jenny breaks off a corner of a chocolate hazelnut cookie the size of a Frisbee. “Caroline has a costume.”
I smile. Caroline’s costume is shreds. Silk shreds, suede shreds, nylon shreds. A walking weeping willow is Caroline. In pink ballet flats. She could read poetry, dance, and wash your SUV at the same time. She probably has. She probably got paid an honorarium for it.
I chug my triple espresso iced mocha, then say, “I don’t think that’s your style.”
Jenny flaps her hands in the air. “I know. But I need a style.”
“Maybe,” I suggest looking at her shell and seed necklace, “You could show up to readings in natural stuff. Burlap. Shells. Feathers. Driftwood.”
She shakes her head at me. “Gabriel has that one.”
She’s right again. Gabriel the gay poet has more fiber than Kashi cereal. He makes a crunchy sound when he walks past the wine and cheese table. Jenny can’t be gay either although it has a certain marketing cache’.
“Tattoos are taken,” I say. Jenny has one, but you’d have to be her doctor or her husband to see it. I’ve never seen it. “Animal skins? Pelts? Fur?”
“Ewwwwww. Anyway I don’t want people throwing blood on me, I want them to buy my chapbooks.”
I lick my finger and pat it into the crumbs on Jenny’s napkin. I don’t eat cookies but crumbs are calorie-free.
I consider other costumes Jenny and I could adopt to promote ourselves and our writing, to make us memorable after the page is turned, our voices fade, and the podium is turned over to the next poet whose eyebrows are linked together with bicycle chain.
I remember poet James Seay wears an eyepatch. For legitimate reasons that I would never want to deal with. But it raises the idea of prosthetics as artistic props. I like the Flannery O’Connorness of it, but if I’m found out it would be worse than faking a drug addiction memoir. Neither Jenny nor I have police records. She has allergies and has had a bout with pneumonia this summer, but it would take someone more sleazy than either of us to turn allergies into a marketing tool. I am unwilling to contract a disease to sell my writing. At the Festival of the Book at Duke this year, Barbara Kingsolver talked about the Bellwether Prize. Pretty much an award given to writing with a social conscience. Writing to make the world better. I listen to Jenny chew her cookie while she marks revisions on a poem about her lawnmower. I wonder if we each took on a cause----pet neutering, spider preservation, crop circle defending---we could parlay it into grants and interviews and readings. I ask myself what I believe in. What I want to promote. What cause am I passionate about? I sit at the vintage red Formica table open to the Universe like my friend Mickey told me to do, a spiritual slice of white bread ready to be filled with inspiration.
And it comes. Same as always. I am filled with ham. I am a ham. Deviled ham. Invented in 1868 and still selling. What I believe in is me. What I am passionate about is writing. What I want to promote is people reading my writing. I sigh and see myself reflected in the aluminum ductwork behind Jenny. White woman, brown hair, glasses, kind of starchy, unremarkable.
But, and my crooked toothed smile shines back at me---a classic. Since 1959. Forty-seven years. Maybe all I need to do is wear red.